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World-Herald editorial: Water, war and history in Iraq

World-Herald editorial: Water, war and history in Iraq

Strains on the region’s water supply are made worse by ongoing warfare.


Water and warfare have been tightly linked through the ages in many corners of the world.

Iraq, home to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, provides a key example. The connection between water and war has been a remarkable historical constant in the region going back to ancient times.

The world’s first recorded “water war” occurred around 4,500 years ago, when a king in ancient Iraq’s “Fertile Crescent” diverted irrigation ditches to deprive a competing ruler of water.

The region’s current fighting provides the latest example. After taking control of the dam at Ramadi, Islamic State forces closed off much of the flow of the Euphrates River so its fighters could cross it.

Cyrus II, founder of the Persian Empire, used that same tactic 2,500 years ago, when he led an invasion force into the region. His troops diverted the Euphrates, then marched on the dry riverbed and attacked Babylon.

Sixteen centuries before Christ, a Babylonian king dammed the Tigris in an effort to put down a rebellion by forces in the wetlands of what’s now southern Iraq.

Where that king failed, in the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein lamentably succeeded. His regime diverted the Tigris and outrageously ended the millennia-old way of life for southern Iraq’s “marsh Arabs.”

International efforts to restore those wetlands have seen a measure of success — a rejuvenated 385-square-mile area was declared the country’s first national park in 2013 — but the challenge remains enormous.

Iraq is among the world’s 148 countries that share rivers or lakes with neighbors. The ability of countries to work out their water conflicts varies widely.

South America, with its La Plata Basin Treaty, provides an example of a well-crafted regional agreement. The same goes for the agreement between South Africa and neighboring Lesotho. Encouraging, too, is the cooperation between Israel and Jordan in regard to the Jordan River.

Thirty-seven countries do not engage in active water cooperation, however, according to the consulting firm Strategic Foresight Group. That number is especially distressing in the wake of NASA’s recent finding that about one-third of the world’s largest aquifers are being depleted with little or no recharge.

The Tigris-Euphrates river basin provides a troubling example. Three dozen dams in four countries are operating in the basin, with more dams planned by Turkey and Iran. The dams and irrigation practices in upstream areas contribute to major water stress.

“The waters of Babylon are running dry,” The Economist, a British magazine, reported in 2013.

The region has long been noted for its lack of cooperation on water management. Now the situation is made even worse by the ongoing conflicts.

The upheaval in Syria and Iraq is a twofold crisis, then. It shatters people’s lives. And it poses an unprecedented threat to the region’s fragile ecology.

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